Marlee Beth Matlin (born August 24, 1965) is an American actress, author, and activist. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Children of a Lesser God (1986) and to date is the only deaf performer to have won the award. Her work in film and television has resulted in a Golden Globe award, with two additional nominations, and four Emmy nominations. Deaf since she was 18 months old, due to illness and high fevers, she is also a prominent member of the National Association of the Deaf. Her longtime interpreter is Jack Jason.
Matlin was born in Morton Grove, Illinois, to Libby (ne Hammer) and Donald Matlin (19302013), an automobile dealer. She has two older brothers, Eric and Marc. She lost all hearing in her right ear and 80% of the hearing in her left ear at the age of 18 months. In her autobiography I’ll Scream Later, she suggests that her hearing loss may have been due to a genetically malformed cochlea. She also stated she is the only member of her family who is deaf. She grew up in a Reform Jewish household; her family is from Poland and Russia. Matlin attended a synagogue for the deaf (Congregation Bene Shalom), and after studying Hebrew phonetically, was able to learn her Torah portion for her Bat Mitzvah. She was later interviewed for the book Mazel Tov: Celebrities’ Bar and Bat Mitzvah Memories. Matlin graduated from John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights and attended Harper College.
In her autobiography I’ll Scream Later, she described two instances when she was molested: by her babysitter at age 11, and by her teacher in high school.
Matlin made her stage debut at the age of seven, as Dorothy in an International Center on Deafness and the Arts (ICODA) children’s theatre of The Wizard of Oz, and continued to appear with the ICODA children’s theatre group throughout her childhood. Her discovery by Henry Winkler during one of her ICODA theater performances ultimately led to her film debut in Children of a Lesser God (1986). That film brought her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama and an Academy Award for Best Actress. Two years later, she made a guest appearance on Sesame Street with Billy Joel performing a revised version of “Just the Way You Are” with lyrics by Tony Geiss. Matlin used sign language during the song and hugged Oscar the Grouch during the song’s conclusion. One year after that, Billy Joel invited her to perform in his video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” where she played the prom-queen-turned-hippie in the mid portion of that video.
In 1989, Matlin portrayed a deaf widow in Bridge to Silence; in that role, she spoke in addition to using sign language. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work as the lead female role in the television series Reasonable Doubts (19911993). Matlin was nominated for an Emmy Award for a guest appearance in Picket Fences (1992), and became a regular on that series during its final season (1996). She played Carrie Buck in the 1994 television drama Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story, based on the United States Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200, which the Court heard in 1927. In that role, Matlin portrayed a hearing woman for the first time in her career, which earned her a CableACE Nomination as Best Actress.
Matlin later had recurring roles in The West Wing, and Blue’s Clues. Other television appearances include Seinfeld (“The Lip Reader“), The Outer Limits (“The Message“), ER, The Practice, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She was nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards for her guest appearances in Seinfeld, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and The Practice.
In 2002, Matlin published her first novel, titled Deaf Child Crossing, which was loosely based on her own childhood. She later wrote and published a sequel titled Nobody’s Perfect, which was produced on stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in partnership with VSA Arts in October 2007. In 2004, she starred in the movie What the Bleep Do We Know!? as Amanda. She also hosted the 3rd annual Festival for Cinema of the Deaf in Chicago, from October 15 to October 18, likewise in 2004.
In 2006, she played a deaf parent in Desperate Housewives. She also had a recurring role as Joy Turner‘s (who made many jokes of Matlin’s deafness at her expense) public defender in My Name Is Earl and played the mother of one of the victims in an episode of CSI: NY. That same year, Matlin was cast in season 4 of The L Word as Jodi Lerner, a gay sculptor. She appeared in season 4 (2007), season 5 (2008), and season 6 (2009) as the girlfriend of one of the show’s protagonists, Bette Porter, played by Jennifer Beals.
On February 4, 2007, and February 7, 2016, Matlin interpreted the “Star Spangled Banner” in American Sign Language at Super Bowl XLI in Miami, Florida and at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, respectively. In January 2008, she appeared on Nip/Tuck as a television executive.
In 2008, Matlin participated as a competitor in the sixth season of ABC‘s Dancing with the Stars. Her dance partner was newcomer Fabian Sanchez. Matlin and Sanchez were the sixth couple eliminated from the competition.
On May 6, 2009, Matlin received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
On November 8, 2009, Matlin appeared on Seth & Alex’s Almost Live Comedy Show, hosted by Seth MacFarlane and Alex Borstein. After Borstein imitated Matlin calling MovieFone and singing “Poker Face,” Matlin herself appeared and launched into a comical tirade against Borstein over being made fun of, and how she was not invited to provide her own voice for Family Guy. Matlin went on to voice Stella, Peter’s coworker, in the Season 10 episode “The Blind Side;” Stella later became a recurring character.
In 2010, Matlin produced a pilot for a reality show she titled My Deaf Family, which she presented to various national network executives. Although they expressed interest, no network purchased rights to the show for ongoing production. On March 29, 2010, Matlin uploaded the pilot to YouTube and launched a viral marketing campaign.
On July 26, 2010, Matlin signed a speech at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In the following year, Matlin was a finalist on the NBC show The Celebrity Apprentice, competing to win money for her charity, The Starkey Hearing Foundation, finishing in second place. However, on one episode of The Celebrity Apprentice, “The Art of the Deal,” which was transmitted on April 3, 2011, Matlin raised more funds than had ever been raised for charity in a single event on any television show before–USD$986,000.Donald Trump, who was then moderating The Celebrity Apprentice, then donated an additional USD$14,000 to make the contribution an even million.
In 2013, Matlin played herself in No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie.
As of January 2015, Matlin also acted as the American Civil Liberties Union‘s celebrity ambassador for disability rights.
In September 2015, Matlin made her Broadway debut in the revival production of the musical Spring Awakening.
Matlin is actively involved with a number of charitable organizations, including Easter Seals (where she was appointed an Honorary Board Member), the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, VSA arts, and the Red Cross Celebrity Cabinet. She was appointed by President Clinton in 1994 to the Corporation for National Service and served as chair of National Volunteer Week. Matlin was a participant in the first-ever national television advertising campaign supporting donations to Jewish federations. The program featured “film and television personalities celebrating their Jewish heritage and promoting charitable giving to the Jewish community” and included Greg Grunberg, Joshua Malina, Kevin Weisman, and Jonathan Silverman.
Matlin received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree from Gallaudet University in 1987. In October 2007, she was appointed to the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees. In 1988, Matlin received the Samuel S. Beard Award for Greatest Public Service by an Individual 35 Years or Under, an award given out annually by Jefferson Awards.
On April 14, 2009, Matlin released an autobiography, I’ll Scream Later. In it, she describes her drug abuse and how it drove her to check herself into the Betty Ford Center. She also tells about her rocky, two-year relationship with actor William Hurt, who she claims was physically abusive to her. She also addresses the sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her female babysitter.
She enjoys a sense of humor about her deafness: “Often Im talking to people through my speaker phone, and after 10 minutes or so they say, ‘Wait a minute, Marlee, how can you hear me?’ They forget I have an interpreter there who is signing to me as they talk. So I say, ‘You know what? I can hear on Wednesdays.'”
Matlin married Burbank police officer Kevin Grandalski on August 29, 1993, at the home of actor Henry Winkler, five days after her 28th birthday. They first met while she was filming a scene from Reasonable Doubts outside the studio grounds; the police department had assigned Grandalski to provide security and control traffic. They have four children: Sarah (born 1996), Brandon (born 2000), Tyler (born 2002), and Isabelle (born 2003).
In recognition of her philanthropic work and her advocacy for the inclusion of people with disabilities, Matlin received the 2016 Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion, a $100,000 prize given annually by the Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation to one individual whose work excels at promoting disability inclusion.
- Matlin, Marlee (2004). Deaf Child Crossing. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0689866968.
- Matlin, Marlee; Cooney, Doug (2007). Leading Ladies. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0689869877.
- Matlin, Marlee; Cooney, Doug (2007). Nobody’s Perfect. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1416949763.
- Matlin, Marlee (2009). I’ll Scream Later. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment. ISBN 978-1439102855.